What is the digital gender divide?
The digital gender divide refers to the gap in access and use of the internet between women* and men, which can perpetuate and exacerbate gender inequalities and leave women out of an increasingly digital world. Despite the rapid growth of internet access around the globe (97% of people now live within reach of a mobile cellular network), women are still 17% less likely to use the internet compared to men; a gap that is actually widening in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where women are 8% less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 20% less likely to actually access the internet on a mobile device.
Though it might seem like a relatively small gap, because mobile phones and smartphones have surpassed computers as the primary way people access the internet, that statistic translates to 390 million fewer women online in LMICs than men. Without access to the internet, women cannot fully participate in different aspects of the economy, join educational opportunities, and fully utilize legal systems.
The digital gender divide does not just stop at access to the internet however; it is also the gap in how women and men use the internet once they get online. Studies show that even when women own mobile phones, they tend to use them less frequently and intensively than men, especially for more sophisticated services, including searching for information, looking for jobs, or engaging in civic and political spaces. Additionally, there is less locally relevant content available to women internet users, because women themselves are more often content consumers than content creators.
The digital gender divide is also apparent in the exclusion of women from leadership or development roles in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. In fact, the proportion of women working in the ICT sector has been declining over the last 20 years. In the United States alone, women only hold around 18% of programming and software development jobs, down from 37% in the 1980s. This helps explain why software, apps, and tools do not often reflect the unique needs that women have, further alienating them. Apple, for instance, whose tech employees are 77% male, did not include a menstrual cycle tracker in its Health app until 2019, five years after it was launched (though it did have a sodium level tracker and blood alcohol tracker during that time).
A NOTE ON GENDER TERMINOLOGY
All references to “women” (except those that reference specific external studies or surveys, which has been set by those respective authors) is gender-inclusive of girls, women, or any person or persons identifying as a woman.
Why is there a digital gender divide?
At the root of the digital gender divide are entrenched traditional gender inequalities, including gender bias, socio-cultural norms, lack of affordability and digital literacy, digital safety issues, and women’s lower (compared to men’s) confidence levels navigating the digital world. While all of these factors play a part in keeping women from achieving equity in their access to and use of digital technologies, the relative importance of each factor depends largely on the region or country.Affordability
In developing countries especially, the biggest barrier to access is simple: affordability. While the costs of internet access and of devices have been decreasing, they are often still too expensive for many people. While this is true for both genders, women tend to face secondary barriers that keep them from getting access, such as not being financially independent, or being passed over by family members in favor of a male relative. In Rwanda, an evaluation of The Digital Ambassador Programme pilot phase found that the costs of data bundles and/or access to devices were prohibitively expensive for a large number of potential women users, especially in the rural areas.
Education is another major barrier for women all over the world. According to the Web Foundation, women who have some secondary education or have completed secondary school are six times more likely to be online than women with primary school or less.
Further, digital skills are also required to meaningfully engage with the Internet. While digital education varies widely by country (and even within countries), girls are still less likely to go to school over all, and those that do tend to have “lower self-efficacy and interest” in studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) topics, according to a report by UNICEF and the ITU. While STEM subjects are not strictly required to use digital technologies, these subjects can help to expose girls to ICTs and build skills that help them be confident in their use of new and emerging technologies. Without encouragement and confidence in their digital skills, women may shy away or avoid opportunities that are perceived to be technologically advanced, even when they do not actually require a high level of digital knowledge.
Social norms have an outsized impact on many aspects of the digital gender divide because they can also be a driving factor vis-à-vis other barriers. Social norms look different in different communities; in places where women are round-the-clock caregivers, they often do not have time to spend online, while in other situations women are discouraged pursuing STEM careers. In other cases, the barriers are more strictly cultural. For example, a report by the OECD indicated that in India and Egypt around one-fifth of women considered that the Internet “was not an appropriate place for them” due to cultural reasons.
Scarcity of content that is relevant and empowering for women and other barriers that prevent women from speaking freely and safely online are also fundamental aspects of the digital gender divide. Even when women access online environments, they face a disproportionate risk of gender-based violence (GBV) online: digital harassment, cyberstalking, doxxing, and the nonconsensual distribution of images (e.g., “revenge porn”). Gender minorities are also targets of online GBV. Trans activists, for example, have experienced increased vulnerability in digital spaces, especially as they have become more visible and vocal. Cyber harassment of women is so extreme that the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned, “if trends continue, instead of empowering women, online spaces may actually widen sex and gender-based discrimination and violence.”
“…if trends continue, instead of empowering women, online spaces may actually widen sex and gender-based discrimination and violence.”
How is the digital gender divide relevant in civic space and for democracy?
The UN understands the importance of women’s inclusion and participation in a digital society. The fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) calls to “enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women.” Moreover, women’s digital inclusion and technological empowerment are relevant to achieving quality education, creating decent work and economic growth, reducing inequality, and building peaceful and inclusive institutions. While digital technologies offer unparalleled opportunities in areas ranging from economic development to health improvement, education, cultural development and political participation, gaps in the access to and use of these technologies and heightened safety concerns hinder women’s ability to access resources and information that are key to improve their lives and the wellbeing of their communities, and exacerbate gender inequalities.
Further, the ways in which technologies are designed and employed, and how data are collected and used impact men and women differently. Whether using technologies to develop artificial intelligence systems and implement data protection frameworks or just for the everyday uses of social media, gender considerations should be at the center of decision–making and planning in the democracy, rights and governance space.
Initiatives that ignore gender disparities in access to the Internet and ownership and use of mobile phones will exacerbate the gender inequalities already experienced by the most vulnerable and marginalized populations. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and increasing GBV during lockdown, millions of women and non-binary individuals have been left with limited access to help, whether via instant messaging services, calls to domestic abuse hotlines, or discreet apps that provide disguised support and information to survivors in case of surveillance by abusers.
Most importantly, initiatives in the civic space must recognize women’s agency and knowledge and be gender-inclusive from the design stage. Women must participate as co-designers of programs and engaged as competent members of society with equal potential to devise solutions rather than perceived as passive victims.
There are a number of different areas to engage in that can have a positive impact in closing the digital gender divide. Read below to learn how to more effectively and safely think about some areas that your work may already touch on (or could include).
Widening job opportunities
According to the ITU, 90% of future jobs will require ICT skills. As traditional analog jobs in which women are overrepresented (such as in the manufacturing, service, and agricultural sectors) are replaced by automation, it is more vital than ever that women learn ICT skills to be able to compete for jobs. While digital literacy is becoming a requirement for many sectors, new, more flexible job opportunities are also becoming more common, and are eliminating traditional barriers to entry, such as age, experience, or location. Digital platforms can enable women in rural areas to connect with cities, where they can more easily sell goods or services. And part-time, contractor jobs in the “gig economy” (such as ride sharing, food delivery, and other freelance platforms) allow women more flexible schedules that are often necessitated by familial responsibilities.
The majority of the world’s unbanked population is comprised of women. Women are more likely than men to lack credit history and the mobility to go to the bank. As such, financial technologies can play a large equalizing role, not only in terms of access to tools but also in terms of how financial products and services could be designed to respond to women’s needs. In the MENA region, for example, where 52% of men but only 35% of women have bank accounts, and up to 20 million unbanked adults in the region send or receive domestic remittances using cash or an over-the-counter service, opportunities to increase women’s financial inclusion through digital financial services are promising.
There are few legal protections for women and gender-diverse people who seek justice for the online abuse they face. According to the UN Broadband Commission, only one in five women live in a country where online abuse is likely to be punished. In many countries, perpetrators of online violence act with impunity, as laws have not been updated for the digital world, even when online harassment results in real-world violence. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for instance, there are no laws that specifically protect women from online harassment, and women who have brought related crimes to the police risk being prosecuted for “ruining the reputation of the attacker.” Sometimes cyber legislation even results in the punishment of victimized women: women in Uganda have been arrested under the Anti-Pornography Act after ex-partners released nude photos of them online. As many of these laws are new, and technologies are constantly changing, there is a need for lawyers and advocates to understand these laws and gaps in legislation to propose policies and amend existing laws that allow women to be truly protected online and safe from abuse.
Digital-security education can help women (especially those at higher risk, like HRDs and journalists) stay safe online and attain critical knowledge to survive and thrive politically, socially, and economically in an increasingly digital world. However, there are not enough digital-safety trainers that understand the context and the challenges at-risk women face; there are few digital-safety resources that provide contextualized guidance around the unique threats that women face or have usable solutions for the problems they need to solve; and social and cultural pressures can prevent women from attending digital- safety trainings. Women can and will be content creators and build resources for themselves and others, but they first must be given the chance to learn about digital safety and security as part of a digital- literacy curricula. Men and boys, too, need training on online harassment and digital-safety education.
Digital platforms enable women to connect with each other, build networks and organize on justice issues. For example, the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct in the media industry, which became a global movement, has allowed a multitude of people to participate in activism previously bound to a certain time and place. Read more about digital activism in the Social Media primer.
There are many ways in which the digital gender divide is widening, even with external intervention. Read below to learn about some of the factors that are accelerating this gap, as well as how to mitigate for unintended – and intended – consequences.
Considering the gender digital divide as “women’s issue”
It is fundamental to consider the gender digital divide as a cross-cutting and holistic issue, affecting countries, societies, communities, and families, and not just as a “women’s issue.” As such, closing the gender gap in access, use and development of technology demands the involvement of societies as a whole. Approaches to close the divide must be holistic and take into account context-specific power and gender dynamics and include active participation of men in the relevant communities to make a sustained difference.
Lockdowns and school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic are contributing to the gender gap in education, especially in the most vulnerable contexts. According to UNESCO, more than 111 million girls who were forced out of school in March 2020 live in the world’s least-developed countries where gender disparities in education are already the highest. In Mali, Niger and South Sudan, countries with some of the lowest enrolment and completion rates for girls, closures left over 4 million girls out of school. Increasing domestic and caregiving responsibilities, a shift towards income generation, and gaps in digital-literacy skills mean that many girls will stop receiving an education, even where access to the Internet and distance-learning opportunities are available. In Ghana, for example, 16% of adolescent boys have digital skills compared to only 7% of girls.
Online GBV has proven an especially powerful tool for undermining women and women-identifying human-rights defenders, civil society leaders and journalists, leading to self-censorship, weakening women’s political leadership and engagement, and restraining women’s self-expression and innovation. According to UNESCO, 73% of women have been or will be exposed to some form of cyber violence in their lifetimes, and 52% of women feel the internet is not a safe place to express their opinions. If these trends are not addressed, closing the digital divide will never be possible, as many women who do get online will be pushed off because of the threats they face there. Women journalists, activists, politicians, and other female public figures receive the brunt of online harassment, through threats of sexual violence and other intimidation tactics. Online violence against journalists leads to journalistic self-censorship, affecting the quality of the information environment and democratic debate.
Solutions include education (training women to use computers and men and boys on how not to behave in online environments), policy change (advocating for the adoption of policies that address online harassment and protect women’s rights online), and technology change (encouraging more women to be involved in the creation of tech will help ensure that the tools and software that are available serve their needs, as women).
Reduced participation of women in leadership of development, coding and design of AI and machine-learning systems leads to reinforcement of gender inequalities through the replication of stereotypes and maintenance of harmful social norms. For example, groups of predominantly male engineers have designed digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, which use women-sounding voices, reinforcing entrenched gender biases, such as women being more caring, sympathetic, cordial and even submissive.
In 2019, UNESCO released “I’d blush if I could”, a research paper whose title was based on the response given by Siri when a human user addressed “her” in an extremely offensive manner. The paper noted that although the system was updated in April 2019 to reply to the insult more flatly (“I don’t know how to respond to that”), “the assistant’s submissiveness in the face of gender abuse remain[ed] unchanged since the technology’s wide release in 2011.” UNESCO suggested that by rendering the voices as women-sounding by default, tech companies were preconditioning users to rely on antiquated and harmful perceptions of women as subservient and failed to build in proper safeguards against abusive, gendered language.
Further, machine-learning systems rely on data that reflect larger gender biases. A group of researchers from Microsoft Research and Boston University trained a machine learning algorithm on Google News articles, and then asked it to complete the analogy: “Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to X.” The answer was “Homemaker,” reflecting the stereotyped portrayal and the deficit of women’s authoritative voices in the news. (Read more about bias in artificial intelligence systems in the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Primer section on Bias in AI and ML).
In addition to expanding job opportunities, higher participation of women in tech leadership and development can help add a gender lens to the field and enhance the ways in which new technologies can be used to improve women’s lives.
Research conducted by Privacy International shows that there is a uniqueness to the surveillance faced by women and gender non-conforming individuals. From data privacy implications related to menstrual-tracker apps, which might collect data without appropriate informed consent, to the ability of women to privately access information about sexual and reproductive health online, to stalkerware and GPS trackers installed on smartphones and internet of things (IoT) devices by intimate partners, pervasive technology use has exacerbated privacy concerns and the surveillance of women.
Research conducted by the CitizenLab, for example, highlights the alarming breadth of commercial software that exists for the explicit purpose of covertly tracking another mobile device activities, remotely and in real-time. This could include monitoring someone’s text messages, call logs, browser history, personal calendars, email accounts and/or photos.
Job losses caused by the replacement of human labor with automated systems lead to “technological unemployment,” which disproportionately affects women, the poor and other vulnerable groups, unless they are re-skilled and provided with adequate protections. Automation also requires skilled labor that can operate, oversee and/or maintain automated systems, eventually creating jobs for a smaller section of the population. But the immediate impact of this transformation of work can be harmful for people and communities without social safety nets or opportunities for finding other work.
Consider these questions when developing or assessing a project proposal that works with women or girls:
- Have women been involved in the design of your project?
- Have you considered the gendered impacts and unintended consequences of adopting a particular technology in your work?
- How are differences in access and use of technology likely to affect the outcomes of your project?
- Are you employing in your project technologies that could reinforce harmful gender stereotypes or fail the needs of women participants?
- Are women and/or non-binary people exposed to additional safety concerns brought about by the use of the tools and technologies adopted in your project?
- Have you considered gaps in sex- or gender-disaggregated data in the dataset used to inform the design and implementation of your project? How could these gaps be bridged through additional primary or secondary research?
- How can your project meaningfully engage men and boys to address the gender digital divide?
- How can your organization’s work help mitigate and eventually close the gender digital divide?
There are many examples of programs that are engaging with women to have a positive effect on the digital gender divide. Find out more about a few of these below.
USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge
In building the Safe Sisters model, Internews has verified that women will dive into improving their understanding of digital safety and share this information in their communities and get new job opportunities—if given the chance. Women can also create context- and language-specific digital-safety resources and will fight for policies that protect their rights online and deter abuse. There is strong evidence of the lasting impact of the Safe Sisters program: two years after the pilot cohort of 13 women, 80% are actively involved in digital safety; 10 have earned new professional opportunities because of their participation; and four have changed careers to pursue digital security professionally.
Find below the works cited in this resource.
- Accenture. (2015). Continuing to Power Economic Growth. Attracting more young women into Science and Technology 2.0.
- Alfaro, Maria Jose Ventura. (2020). Feminist solidarity networks have multiplied since the Covid-19 outbreak in Mexico. Interface Journal.
- Anderson, Sydney. (2015). India’s Gender Digital Divide: Women and Politics on Twitter. ORF Issue Brief.
- Association for Progressive Communications (APC). (2017). Bridging the Gender Digital Divide from a Human Rights Perspective.
- Avila, Renata et al. (2018). Artificial Intelligence: Open Questions About Gender Inclusion. World Wide Web Foundation.
- Dyck, Cheryl Miller Van. (2017). The Digital Gender Divide Is an Economic Problem for Everyone. GE.
- EQUALS & UN University. (2019). Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Equality in Digital Access, Skills, and Leadership.
- EQUALS & UNESCO. (2019). I’d Blush If I Could: Closing Gender Divides in Digital Skills through Education.
- EQUALS. (2019). 10 Lessons Learnt: Closing the Gender Gap in Internet Access and Use, Insights From the EQUALS Access Coalition.
- GSM Association. (2020). Connected Women: The Mobile Gender Gap Report.
- International Telecommunications Union (ITU). (2019). Measuring Digital Development: Facts and Figures.
- Khoo, Cynthia, Robertson, Kate & Ron Deibert. (2019). Installing Fear: A Canadian Legal and Policy Analysis of Using, Developing, and Selling Smartphone Syware and Stalkerware Applications. Citizen Lab.
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2018). Bridging the Digital Gender Divide: Include, Upskill, Innovate.
- The World Bank. (2018). Financial Inclusion on the Rise, But Gaps Remain, Global Findex Database Shows.
- Giannini, Stefania. (2020). Covid-19 school closures around the world will hit girls hardest. UNESCO.
- UNICEF & The International Telecommunication Union (ITU). (2020). Towards an equal future: Reimagining girls’ education through STEM.
- United States Department of State. (2019). Inclusive Technology: The Gender Digital Divide, Human Rights & Violence Against Women.
- USAID. (2020). USAID Digital Strategy. Covid-19 and the Gender Digital Divide.
- Internews and DefendDefenders’ Safe Sisters.
- Privacy International’s work on gender and surveillance.
*A NOTE ON GENDER TERMINOLOGY
All references to “women” (except those that reference specific external studies or surveys, which has been set by those respective authors) is gender-inclusive of girls, women, or any person or persons identifying as a woman.